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Is ‘killing with kindness’ the best way for big business to advance LGBTI rights?

Is ‘killing with kindness’ the best way for big business to advance LGBTI rights?

L-R: Leo Varadkar, Tiernan Brady and Margot Slattery at the Out Leadership 2015 Europe Summit in London
David Hudson
David Hudson

LGBT diversity and inclusion conferences can sometimes, despite being motivated by the best of interests, cover familiar territory.

In short: Being out at work lends you greater authenticity and staying in the closet uses up precious energy that could be better spent doing your job.

Gay employees already know this, and, increasingly, so does big business.

The reason so many multinational companies take LGBTI diversity and inclusion seriously nowadays is because they understand that it affects their bottom line; their profits and their ability to attract and retain skilled staff.

However, it also gives them a big dilemma; How do they go about promoting their LGBTI-friendly credentials in countries where those communities face widespread persecution?

‘I’d love to sit here and say that we won’t do business in those countries, but I’m afraid that’s not going to happen,’ said Jane Barker, the chairman of Marsh Ltd and Mercer Ltd, UK, at this week’s Out Leadership 2015 Europe LGBT Summit.

Barker, a committed ally to LGBT employees, was speaking on a panel with other senior business leaders. At the event, which took place last night at the Canary Wharf headquarters of Credit Suisse in London, they explored the thorny issue of promoting gay rights in territories where engaging in conversations about sexuality and gender identity is difficult.

Specifically, places such as Asia or the Middle East, where individuals or organizations that stick their head above the LGBTI parapet can face considerable backlash.

The upshot of that conversation? Organizations must do what they can to promote diversity and inclusion internally and ensure the safety of their staff; Externally, promote the organization’s internal values, make it know that those values help attract top talent, whilst staying respective to cultural traditions and differences.

And it’s this ‘respecting cultural differences’ which some LGBTI people will undoubtedly question. How far does one go to respect such differences? Should big business be doing more to demand the LGBTI rights that they now appear to embrace?

An illuminating insight into campaigning for LGBTI rights came from a second summit panel yesterday evening, which explored the recent same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland.

Business played a part in campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote, and Ireland – a traditionally Catholic country – has never found it easy to discuss issues around sex and sexuality.

What was striking from the discussion was how campaigners had to be very careful over how they went about ensuring the majority of the country voted in favor of the same-sex marriage legislation.

How did they achieve it? In their own words, by killing with kindness.

Campaigners went out night after night and knocked on people’s doors and engaged with them, asking them how they would vote.

They kept discussions extremely personal; recounting their own life stories and explaining why same-sex marriage was important to them and how it would affect their lives.

They patiently listened to arguments and politely answered questions.

‘A lot of people asked questions about sex,’ admitted Margot Slattery, Managing Director of Sodexo Ireland and a campaigner for equal marriage, saying some campaigners found themselves engaging in difficult conversations.

Despite this, the pro-yes lobby recognized that ‘there is no such thing as a stupid question, only a stupid answer.’

They discovered that some straight people are afraid of talking about gay issues because they’re fearful of using language that might offend. Therefore, it was important not to get offended or to get angry.

‘Sometimes [LGBT] people can be their own worst enemy in this respect,’ said Leo Varadkar, Minister of Health in Ireland, who came out as gay whilst campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote.

‘We had the h-bomb word we avoided using; homophobe,’ said Tiernan Brady, the Political Director of the Gay Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN). ‘If someone said it on the radio, they wouldn’t be put on the radio again.

‘You are not going to convince people to vote in your favor if you are screaming at them that they are a homophobe.’

Varadkar agreed, saying; ‘Kill the opposition with kindness and keep the tone positive. Don’t let them rile you. I was very proud of the LGBT community because some of them found it very hard not to be angry – but people innately knew that they had to behave in a certain way.’

An example of this was the #RingYourGranny campaign – encouraging gay grandchildren and allies to call their grandparents and explain why a ‘yes’ vote was important.

Varadkar pointed out that the ‘yes’ campaign was well organized and able to draw on a wide range of positive role models – long-term same-sex couples and gay families with kids. The ‘no’ campaign, by comparison, had few role models.

‘And the ‘no’ campaign focused on the risk to children … it didn’t really engage with the central issue.’

Campaigners also had to convince a lot of people with strong religious views. Again, the fact that a handful of Catholic nuns and priests spoke in favor of the legislation helped, but so did appealing to specific Christian values; charity, empathy and ‘love thy neighbor.’

Are you listening, Kim Davis?

L-R: Christopher 'Kip' Forbes (Forbes, Inc), Jane Barker (Marsh Ltd), Sir David Walker, Noreen Doyle (Credit Suisse) and Malcom Sweeting (Clifford Chance) at the Out Leadership 2015 Europe Summit
L-R: Christopher ‘Kip’ Forbes (Forbes, Inc), Jane Barker (Marsh Ltd), Sir David Walker, Noreen Doyle (Credit Suisse) and Malcom Sweeting (Clifford Chance) at the Out Leadership 2015 Europe Summit

Lastly, never underestimate the power of straight allies – or the number of people who have gay family members who may have strong feelings on this issue. Get them on board and you might be surprised how quickly they will want to advocate for you.

In fact, it was interesting to note from the evening’s conversations that some multinational corporations are realizing its easier to launch an allies program in specific territories ahead of launching an LGBT employee resource group.

There is plenty to get angry about in the way LGBTI people are treated in some countries; there are times when rioting will get results. But there are also situations where a softly-softly approach is required.

Obviously, Ireland is not Dubai or Singapore. But given the success of its ‘Yes’ campaign, the approach might provide pointers for businesses that are genuinely confused as to how to promote their values in countries where same-sex sexual activity remains illegal.



Images: Amy Vivian